The French territory of New Caledonia is on course to reject independence in a referendum, local media report, amid a big drop in turnout due to a boycott of the vote by the independence movement.
The indigenous Kanak population, who largely favour independence, had called for non-participation in the referendum because they are in a 12-month mourning period following a September surge in coronavirus infections.
Local TV channel NC La 1ere said that with 86 per cent of votes counted, support for a “no” to independence was at 96 per cent.
Sunday’s vote, the third and final ballot on the issue, follows two previous polls in 2018 and 2020 in which the “no” vote got 57 per cent to 53 per cent respectively.
— NC La 1ère (@ncla1ere) December 12, 2021
The French overseas ministry declined to comment.
President Emmanuel Macron was scheduled to give an address on the vote on Sunday, his office said.
“Early signs in New Caledonia that the independence movement call for ‘non-participation’ is being heeded,” a journalist in the Pacific, Nic Maclellan, said on Twitter.
“While there are queues of voters at Noumea town hall in the capital, few voters are turning out so far in Kanak-majority areas in the Loyalty Islands and Northern Province.”
Just over 41 per cent of eligible voters had cast their ballots by 5pm local time, the French embassy in New Caledonia said. That was well below the figure at the same time during the 2020 vote, when nearly 80 per cent of votes had been cast.
Analysts fear a “no” vote will drive anger among those who support independence, creating instability.
One of five island territories spanning the Indo-Pacific held by France, New Caledonia is the centrepiece of Macron’s plan to increase its influence in the Pacific.
Sunday’s vote is the third prescribed by a deal hammered out a decade after talks on the island’s future began in 1988, and which called for a series of independence referendums.
Fighting erupted in the 1980s in the nickel-rich territory, 1200km east of Australia and 20,000km from France, between supporters of independence and those who wanted to stay French.